I just finished reading Paddlenorth, by Jennifer Kingsley, possibly the first book I’ve read from cover to cover since committing to coming out of retirement six months ago. The author takes the reader with her and her five adventurous companions as they canoe through the challenging rapids, ice, and sub-Arctic wilderness of the Back River in Canada’s newest northern territory, Nunavut, arriving 54 action-packed days later at the river’s mouth where it merges with the Arctic Ocean. They were insect-ravaged, bruised, and weathered, and they wore these battle scars as badges of honour. In constant 24-hour daylight they had persevered through endless trials, had encountered the riches of Arctic wildlife, from mosquitoes to wolves to massive herds of caribou, and had learned a lot about themselves in the process.
Reading Jenny’s book reminded me of our own trip to the Canadian Arctic this past summer – and how I had yearned to describe what I had seen and learned at the time, but the all-consuming job I returned to (a perhaps not-fully-thought-through commitment!) got in the way. And, as it happens, Jenny Kingsley is not only an author but was also a naturalist guide on our trip. Now my yearning to share is back, exactly when I have a few days between Christmas and New Year in which to indulge this itch. So for those of you who wonder about the lure of the far North, let me try to explain.
Anyone who reads travel ads will know that trips to Antarctica are extremely expensive. There’s a reason for that: it’s very far away from any place where you could pick up anything beyond perhaps some ice or penguin droppings. There’s a cost in provisioning a ship for that kind of trip, and a cost to being prepared for Plan B when weather and rough seas foul up Plan A. It turns out that, not surprisingly, the same holds true for trips to the far North. When my brother asked if we might be interested in a trip to Antarctica, I quickly replied that we could probably only afford one polar trip in our lifetime, and for me the Arctic wins. I could not have been more pleased with that decision.
The reality is that the Canadian High Arctic – and Greenland – are so rich in history, culture, geography, geology, and wildlife that to do it justice will take several posts. This one will serve as my overview post.
I should start by clarifying that while Paddlenorth reminded me of the magic of the North, I can’t claim that I was reminded because of similar days of canoeing through frigid rushing water or camping at the river’s edge. We experienced the North the lazy way, in the capable and luxurious hands of a National Geographic Expedition, on a well-equipped ship of 150 guests, excellent cooks, and numerous field experts. Definitely the way to go!
We had a hint about why trips in the extreme north are expensive when we received an email before leaving for the trip, explaining that the pack ice on the northeast coast of Baffin Island was taking longer than usual to disperse and that we would not be able to board the ship (using Zodiacs) at Iqaluit as planned. This was August! (As it turned out, a community halfway up the coast of Baffin Island, Clyde River, would most likely not be free of pack ice in time for their annual provisioning ship to reach them before the weather started to turn again. The sobering realities of isolated northern communities.) Instead of flying from Ottawa to Iqaluit and cruising up the coast of Baffin Island, stopping and going ashore in Zodiacs for wildlife sightings, we would stop in Iqaluit to refuel and then fly on to Kangerlussuaq in Greenland; they would rearrange the itinerary to avoid the ice. When I read that email I knew we were in for something special.
We flew into Kangerlussuaq, an old U.S. air force base from WWII, in light rain and 15C/60F temperatures, took note of the anchored cruise ships of two other travel companies in the fjord that would not be sailing after all because of the ice situation, piled into Zodiacs and headed for our floating home for the next 11 days. Definitely a unique start to our summer holiday.
Instead of the itinerary that would have had us visiting spots on the west coast of Greenland at the conclusion of our trip, we did a bit at the beginning and a bit at the end. Greenland is yet another place that I had no expectation of whatsoever. On maps it looks enormous and always strangely white. Although the Mercator projection of most flat wall maps stretches Greenland way beyond its true size and shape, it is big – the biggest island in the world. And the reason it is always coloured white is because, despite having been named Greenland by European explorers anxious to convince people to populate it, it is in fact almost completely ice. The Greenland ice sheet covers about 80% of the island, reaching depths of 3.5 miles. Virtually all of the icebergs that make their way into the North Atlantic are calved from the Greenland ice sheet, and most of those are from the absolutely remarkable – truly spellbinding – Icefjord at Ilulissat, a world heritage site.
Facts: Although Greenland has been part of Denmark since they started colonizing it in the 18th century, it has been inhabited by Inuit people for possibly as long as 4500 years. 88% of the population is Inuit, with the rest being Danish. There are only 57,000 people in all of Greenland, and the population hugs the coastline in small communities connected only by boat. The official language is Greenlandic, which is an Inuit language. They have purebred Greenlandic sled dogs that are larger than those of the Canadian Inuit, and no other breeds are allowed north of the 60th parallel in order to protect the breed. The mainstays of the economy are fishing and transfer payments from Denmark. They have a very young population. I had no idea.
Anyone looking for an adventure of hiking and ice climbing would love visiting Greenland. My guess is that you’d want to stick to July and August!
Pond Inlet and the Inuit way of life
I would be hard pressed to say how excited I was that we were going to stop at Pond Inlet. I can’t say precisely why, except that this visit to an Inuit community in the high Arctic was unexpected and something very important to me as a Canadian. Pond Inlet was the only community on Baffin Island (another very large island, the 5th biggest in the world) that was free of ice so that we could get to shore; hence our surprise visit.
Like most indigenous communities in Canada, this is a community located and built by bureaucrats in Ottawa. It is a community of people who started their lives living on the land – and ice – hunting for narwhal, seals, fish and polar bear. Completely and utterly self-sufficient. They were lured into this new town because the government wanted their children to go to school. Unfortunately, the government hadn’t thought this out too well, and so there are people with some education but few opportunities, and of course they can no longer be self-sufficient. Can you imagine how much food costs that is flown in from thousands of miles away or shipped in once a year? Or how fresh it is? Or how good it is for you when your metabolism has evolved to process only meat, mostly raw. The Inuit story as part of the Canadian narrative is a complex one and not always pretty, as are the stories of all our indigenous people. Definitely deserving of one or many future blog posts.
Polar bear, walruses, and other wildlife
We were truly blessed when we headed west from Pond Inlet, past Bylot Island and into Prince Regent Inlet. Truly blessed. As we discovered in Pond Inlet and saw in abundance in the landscape to the west, this part of Nunavut is stark desert. The mountains, the ground, everything is desert. It is no wonder that, unlike other bears, polar bears do not expect to be eating berries! Hence the bears floating on sea ice hunting for seals. Spotting a huge bear as a solitary small white dot in a landscape of endless sea ice is unbelievably special. Seeing them up close is even more so, especially when it turns out they have babies with them.
And the walrus – now there’s a surprise. It turns out that this massive mound of blubber, weighing up to 2000 lbs, mostly eats clams. That must be a lot of clams, and it must take a lot of effort to find and suck those clams from their shells at the bottom of the sea. I envision huge piles of empty clam shells at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean near the coast line. Presumably these walruses mostly scour the sea bed in relatively shallow water. I sure hope so, for their sake.
Plenty of other wildlife were to be found, including arctic hare, reindeer in Greenland, caribou, muskox, seals, whales, and a multitude of birds. Another topic for a subsequent post.
Icebergs and ice
I knew I wanted to see icebergs up close and personal, but I was not prepared for the Icefjord at Ilulissat. Nor was I prepared to walk on the Greenland ice sheet, intensely aware that the expanse of ice I was on continued from where I was standing for hundreds of miles. Or that the ice where I walked was probably a few miles deep. All very hard to absorb.
In returning to Greenland, we sailed from Devon Island just north of Baffin Island, from Lancaster Sound east across Baffin Bay along a channel with a current that clearly captured icebergs calved off the Greenland ice sheet. Icebergs passed on either side of our ship, parallel to our ship’s path. It was like being on a highway where instead of cars there were icebergs, with each one being a unique, specialized model. It was extraordinary, especially in the glow of the very late northern twilight of August. But witnessing this iceberg traffic journeying across Baffin Bay paled in comparison to our experience in Disko Bay on the Greenland coast, cruising in small boats around the stranded icebergs in the Icefjord at Ilulissat. It was magical, simply beyond the imagination. To be there was to experience light and shapes, height and grandeur, and a surprising sense of tranquility. I’ll let some of our pictures tell their tale and then save more information for a future blog.
History and Culture
The history of the Arctic people is extensive. It is thought that the region was first inhabited by the Dorset people and then the Thule. Dates seem to vary, as do the times at which it is thought that the eastern Canadian Arctic and western Greenland were settled, but people have lived in the far north for a very long time, somewhere between 2500 B.C. and 1000 B.C. The Inuit are descendants of these people. We found evidence of Thule tent rings and grave markers in the tundra at several Zodiac landings we made, including at Devon Island north of Baffin Island.
The history of the Arctic from a European perspective revolves around famous explorers, who were seeking fame, resources, furs, new territory to claim and map, and the elusive Northwest Passage. The names of most geographic features in the region speak to that European-centric worldview; they are all named for British or other European explorers. Of course, those are not the original names used by the indigenous people at all. You can find maps where all the names are the authentic ones. And this speaks to the history of the region once Europeans arrived and the impact that had on the local populations. Europeans started making their presence known in earnest in the nineteenth century, although there had been early interactions with the Vikings and early Basque fishermen. As with other indigenous populations around the world, when the Europeans arrived it was not what you might call a win-win situation. We can leave those stories and musings for another blog post.
The good news is that due to the inhospitable climate and isolation of the region, the majority of the population are Inuit. This means that their language and culture are alive and protected, despite the challenges inherent in moving from a hunter-gatherer society to a new model that will allow a viable future in this captivating but hostile climate. There is no group of people for whom I wish success in determining their own sustainable destiny more than the Inuit of Nunavut.
For more blog posts on our trip to the Arctic:
Greenland – a gigantic ice sheet with a fringe of green
Have you heard about the Big 5? How about the Arctic Big 5?